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What is the record for the largest single solid item that has ever been dropped from an airplane at free fall to the ground?

  1. Here, "free fall" means falling vertically, or nearly vertically falling allowing some leeway for expected horizontal movement such as the ground speed of the plane doing the drop, winds, or unintended Magnus effect among other things, and allows for normal atmospheric air resistance.

  2. The object being dropped should be payload, not part of the vehicle doing the dropping.

  3. The object should not be designed with the intent to generate lift. For example, the above mentioned Magnus effect would disqualify if a machine was purposely built to spin with the intention of generating lift. This includes things with wings, parachutes, landing thrusters, etc.

  4. The object must have hit the ground in an uncontrolled descent in the past. In other words, satellites in free-fall orbit around the Earth do not count unless they fell to the ground and then got re-launched into orbit again (unlikely).

  5. Objects that burn up in the atmosphere do not reach the ground as a single solid object, so they do not count unless any possibly remaining fragment that may reach the ground is still the biggest object to be dropped and reach the ground in its destroyed state (unlikely).

  6. The item does not have to have been intentionally dropped. For example, if it were dropped with a parachute, but the parachute failed to deploy, that counts.

  7. Bombs easily count as long as they don't have a parachute, thrusters, wings or any other design factor that is intended to generate lift.

  8. Last, but not least, "largest" means greatest volume, not heaviest.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Federico May 26 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not completely sure I understand point 4, but I suggest rewording it to something like: "The object must have already hit the ground at some point before today. In other words, satellites which are currently, today, in free-fall orbit around the Earth do not count." Or, alternatively, simply "The object must not have been in orbit at any time." $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett May 26 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ Given the "aircraft" limitation, I would think some of the "massive ordnance" bombs would be about as close as it comes. Several of these exceeded 10 tons. Without that limitation the obvious winner is Theia, in "the big splash" that formed the moon. $\endgroup$ – Hot Licks May 27 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ Could you specify whether the shuttle being dropped from the 747 carrying it counts, and how you judicate on the shuttle 'dropping' it's main tank? Both are pretty much the end of the discussion if applicable. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm May 27 at 9:35
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I can't think of anything dropped from an aircraft larger than the US Space Shuttle when it was dropped from a specially modified 747 during the testing phases of development.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Federico May 26 at 9:29
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If you consider the space shuttle an aircraft its self, the external tank was dropped after it was depleted and broke up on impact to the Indian ocean. The heavy early version weight 58,000 LBS empty and 1.68 Million LBS fully loaded. While not heavier than the shuttle it was volumetrically larger.

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If we're counting the Space Shuttle orbiter, then I'd say it's probably that's probably the winner at around 150,000 pounds. As Juan's answer describes, it was dropped from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for glide testing before the first shuttle launches. The orbiter 'glides' about as well as the average brick, so this seems like it should count.

Other possible contenders I can think of:

  • Pegasus XL, an air-launched rocket. It is dropped from an aircraft, after which point its rocket motor ignites to launch a satellite into orbit. Approximately 51,000 pounds.

  • The Minuteman 1b inter-continental ballistic missile. While normally launched from the ground, a test was conducted on 24 October 1974 in which one was dropped and launched from the cargo bay of a C-5 Galaxy. According to the USAF, the dropped missile stack weighed 86,000 pounds.

  • The absurdly-large Russian fusion bomb RDS-220, better known in the West as "Tsar Bomba," coming in around 60,000 pounds.

It's also worth noting that all of these may be soon blown out of the water if Stratolaunch Systems gets their way. The Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft is capable of dropping 550,000 pounds of rocket stack payload. The first test flight of the carrier aircraft has been completed, but it hasn't dropped a payload yet.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer! I didn't know the Space Shuttle's approach glide ratio is 4.5:1, which is only slightly higher than the model concrete glider featured in MythBusters, at 4:1. And the empty weight of the Space Shuttle is only about 165,000 pounds, so a Stratolaunch mission could easily surpass that by a factor of about three. $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez May 24 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately I wouldn't put much faith in Stratolaunch. They appear to be in much worse financial straits since Paul Allen died; and have cancelled development of an in house rocket in lieu of only carrying Pegasus XL. That rocket is extremely expensive for its performance level, so finding any customers is going to be a challenge. $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely May 25 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @DanNeely Yeah, that's why I put the "if" in there. Even before Allen died, it seems like they've been having a lot of trouble finding the right rocket to launch from it. $\endgroup$ – reirab May 25 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Did the Tsar Bomba actually hit ground or was it detonated above? $\endgroup$ – Polygnome May 26 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Polygnome It was an air burst, but most of it eventually hit the ground. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab May 26 at 17:22
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A good candidate here is the US T-12 cloudmaker (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-12_Cloudmaker) at 43,600 lbs.

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    $\begingroup$ All bombs dropped from an aircraft glide. They do not fall straight down and hit the spot directly below the point where they were released. $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez May 24 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ That a bomb's trajectory, when dropped from a vehicle with a horizontal velocity, is not simply vertical has nothing to do with flying or gliding. It would demonstrate this behavior in a vacuum. It's just Newton's 1st Law in action. $\endgroup$ – Dancrumb May 24 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @dancrumb This study begs to differ with your conclusions. academia.edu/4005202/… $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez May 24 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @JuanJimenez if the study begs to differ with Newton's Laws of Motion then I don't care to take the time to read it. If, on the other hand, you're obliquely making the point that more than gravity affects the path of a falling bomb, then I would gladly concede that point, while re-stating that aerodynamic force are not a necessary factor to explain why a bomb does not directly below its point of release. $\endgroup$ – Dancrumb May 24 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JuanJimenez Nothing dropped from a moving aircraft falls straight down, so I'm not sure what point you're trying to make. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby May 25 at 11:33
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Not dropped from an aircraft, and was part of the vehicle but Saturn V’s first stage was jettisoned at the weight of more than 360000 lbs or 160000 kgs. On Apollo 11 the mass of the first stage was 363425 lbs when jettisoned. After that, it fell freely to the ocean.

Source: http://apollo11nasa.blogspot.com/2012/07/saturn-v-inert-weight-or-dry-weight-or_22.html?m=1

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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, that's pretty heavy. May warrant it's own question of what is the heaviest man-made object to fall from space to the ground. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen May 26 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ @RyanMortensen that honour would probably fall to Mir or maybe Skylab. $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 27 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ And S-1C stage did not fall from space. It was jettisoned at around 61 km, which is high for atmospheric flight but still well below Kármán line (100km). Also, the stack was travelling almost upwards at the time so it went on ballistic trajectory. $\endgroup$ – busdriver May 27 at 15:45
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Since you have edited the question to require both "free-fall" and "second use in this fashion" (implying intentional dropping ), the answer is "none". Things aren't dropped out of airplanes on purpose twice.

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    $\begingroup$ Parachutes are dropped out of airplanes multiple times on purpose (in most cases attached to a human). $\endgroup$ – Polygnome May 26 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ There is no requirement for second use, only that the object has impacted the ground at a point in time prior to your answer. Re-dropping is an optional possibility. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen May 26 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @RyanMortensen, maxim 11: Everything is air-droppable at least once. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm May 26 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ @RyanMortensen sorry I did not understand "4. The object must have hit the ground in an uncontrolled descent in the past. In other words, satellites in free-fall orbit around the Earth do not count unless they fell to the ground and then got re-launched into orbit again (unlikely)". I interpreted this as mandatory reuse. What does this condition mean actually? $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 26 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper The condition is intended to exclude objects that have not yet completed their fall to make an impact with the ground such as items in freefall orbit around the Earth that are intended to perpetually remain in orbit. *Some people were seemingly going out of their way to be kind of silly about supposed points of ambiguity, so I was pressured into adding this. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen May 26 at 20:55
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The MOAB prototype was 30 feet long and 40 inches in diameter and hard landed. It seems to qualify, but it is a GBU with gridfins, so not totally a dumb bomb. It has almost the same envelope volume as the T12. You'd need an accurate scan of the two to figure out which had the greater volume.

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I also seem to recall that large seaplanes were developed to carry boats out to bombed naval vessels. These weren't little rafts, these were plank on frame, wooden, ocean capable lifeboats with diesel engines that could be airdropped.

It also sounds like failed air drops could qualify - extraction chute functions normally, Main shoots or pallets fail completely. That has certainly happened a few time.

Several of the D-Day invasion towed gliders suffered catastrophic structural failures while being towed, and became qualifying items as they were jettisoned.

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